December 21, 2009
What is "Soft Socratic" Teaching?
Posted by Jeff Lipshaw
Jacqueline Lipton over at The Faculty Lounge observed that the self-described teaching style au courant in FRC interviews these days is something called "soft Socratic." Here's Jacqueline's description: "When asked about their 'teaching style', candidates invariably answer 'soft Socratic'. In other words, they like to create a welcoming atmosphere in the classroom where students feel free to participate, but also be sufficiently rigorous in calling on students to ensure that everyone is prepared." Others have chimed in, including Ilya Somin at Volokh Conspiracy, Dave Hoffman at Concurring Opinions, Steve Bainbridge, and my co-author, Larry Ribstein, (the latter three all in the context of teaching corporations, and with PowerPoint, and the last with a plug for an excellent unincorporated business entities casebook.)
I've converted to what I think is "soft PowerPoint," which I define as projecting those things that I know I would have put on the whiteboard anyway - the class outline and schematics of the cases, for example. I've even adopted the "sidebar" outline approach now seen on ESPN SportsCenter. This is a concession to my innate randomness. When I started at Wake Forest in 2005, I imported the wholly non-visual style of my own teachers from the second half of the Seventies. I moved to having non-PowerPoint "class outlines" (formatted in Word, and posted on TWEN) so that the students would have a sense where we were in the material, and now, to some extent, keep that scrolling on the left side of the schematics or bit of statutory language that may be on a slide at any given time.
But I'm still not sure what "soft Socratic" is, as opposed to my style, which I would call "interrogative lecture," something I think falls between whatever soft Socratic is, and the incredibly annoying "anyone? anyone?" style of Ben Stein in Ferris Bueller's Day Off. I distinguish this from true lecture, which I think of as non-interrogative or non-interactive, and the best of which have wonderful narrative structure, a beginning, a middle, and an end, with a pace and an organization that bring you along from one place of shared knowledge to another of greater understanding.
I think there are two aspects of classroom manner that make the teaching Socratic of any kind. First, the teacher calls on students (rather than relying on volunteers). The method of calling, and the amount of warning (e.g. panels, going in alphabetical order, working across the seating chart) don't matter - if you call on students other than volunteers, it's Socratic. Second, whether or not, it's "soft," there's a certain amount of squirm that the teacher is willing to allow the student to endure. It may be a nanosecond of squirm, or it may be an extended squirm, but there's squirm. In my view, there's a third element to traditional "hard" Socratic method, but I'm not inclined to make it a sine qua non, because it usually disappears in "soft Socratic": the progression of questions from the statement of the facts of the case, through the court's holding, to a series of increasingly minor variations in the fact pattern, to the point at which the viability of the rule of law announced in the case, at least as a matter of analogical reasoning, falls away. The primary pedagogical purpose is to impart the understanding that in the common law the court's holding and the facts are inextricably linked, and to test the power of the analogy that supposedly connects the thread of the law as it progresses from case to case. (I take no position in this blog post as to whether that's a load of hooey, but I will say that the notion of a case being "on all fours" depends on precisely this relationship. Moreover, if you think about the "law" being taught, say in 1910, which I'm positive was overwhelmingly case law versus statutory interpretation or any kind of "law and..." (even at "elite" schools), it's not surprising that it might well have worked!)
As I said, I wouldn't call what I do soft Socratic, because over the past several years in upper level courses (the only ones I teach presently), I have gradually eliminated, in roughly this order: (i) cold-calling; (ii) "on-call panels"; (iii) calling on people at all; and (iv) finally, the seating chart (in favor of name cards). (I'm teaching contracts next year, so I'm considering all of this for its application to the first year, or at least the first semester.) Nevertheless, I still pounce around in moderately manic style, often posing rhetorical or not so rhetorical questions, and often staring with puppy dog eyes at a student or two, begging for an answer if for no other reason than to remind me I'm not talking to the wall. I have a hard time calling that a "lecture" (see above). My primary objection to any kind of Socratic method is the result of my experience as a student and as a teacher. As a student, when others were in the throes of Socratic exchange, I recall drifting off to more pleasant thoughts, writing sarcastic comments in the notebook of my friend sitting next to me, or turning to the only redeeming aspect of The Stanford Daily, the New York Times crossword puzzle (so much for the evil of Internet surfing). As a teacher, not only do I see my own students doing the same, but it strikes me as a terrible waste of time to drag whatever teaching point I want to make out of the poor kid.
Having said all that, I do indeed on occasion go into "what if" mode, with a series of questions changing the facts just a little each time, to make precisely the point about the relationship of facts, law, and policy that I believe was the basis for the institution of Socratic method at the outset. I just don't do it by calling on students or making them squirm.
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